Investing in Leadership Is Mission Critical in an Era of Scarcity

Based on my work over the past two decades in the social sector—and especially my past 12 years of working with Venture Philanthropy Partners—I have a perspective on the factors that are most responsible for undermining progress on our greatest social challenges.

As I see it, the whole system sets nonprofits up for struggle and starvation, not for solving challenges. We funders, board members, and civic leaders should be supporting nonprofit leaders to build strong, high-performance organizations. Instead, we cause them to think incrementally—month to month and hand to mouth. We often say we’re focused on results. But really what we’re doing is pushing our agendas and demanding more information on results without paying enough attention to what leaders actually need in order to do their jobs and produce those results.

Pat Lawler is a stunning nonprofit leader in Memphis, Tennessee. He runs an organization called Youth Villages, which helps emotionally troubled young people—many of them kids who’ve been bounced from one foster home to the next—become successful adults.

Pat’s results are extraordinary. Eighty-two percent of the kids in Youth Village programs across the country are rising above their heart-wrenching challenges. They are finishing school, earning a living, and contributing to their communities. That’s literally twice the rate achieved by comparable programs. If that’s not eye-opening enough, Pat’s program costs one-third as much as competitor programs. Twice the outcomes. One-third the cost!

And yet Pat reports that he’s lost more government contracts and had to lay off more people in the past six months than in his previous 32 years combined. This kills me!

I’m well aware that governments at all levels are being forced to make hard and deep cuts. But why are governments and private funders giving everyone a funding “haircut?” Why can’t they reward and support organizations that can show that what they do works and results in more lives improved?! This is as ridiculous as those “across the board cuts” in business that throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The social sector is in for a big jolt in the coming years—with rising demand for services and reduced funding to pay for them. My (evidence-based) belief is that the best way to address this challenge is to provide much deeper support to courageous nonprofit and government leaders who are willing to learn, adapt, and grow.

Each of us has a role to play. If you want to read my concrete call to action for funders, nonprofit leaders, board members, and civic leaders, please take a look at a speech I gave to the City Club of Cleveland on Friday, April 27.

Mario Morino is the co-founder and chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners
 

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